Wednesday, March 07, 2012

More Beautiful Than Silence, K'naan's Ever Growing Reach

Rapper K'naan's unique (not using this word lightly) vision no doubt stems, in large part, from the fact that he experienced the Somalian Civil War at 13 before becoming a refugee to Canada and living through a new kind of ghetto violence in Toronto's Rexdale neighborhood. He describes the meanest of streets, making dark jokes like "Body chalk! I'm used to seeing bodies chopped/I've seen shit to give new meaning to the body shop."  Talking of comrades who are snipers and pirates, he embraces the gangsta's class consciousness without ever turning cynical.

On "Better," he pays tribute to the listener who knows "to grow up is never giving up on your dreams."  And this EP is all about hanging onto such life affirming hope.  With chiming keyboards that give it a girl group shimmer, opener "Is Anybody Out There" contemplates an isolated boy and girl unable to find each other--or any other hand to hold--in the midst of competition and neglect. As if to dramatize our need for one another, K'naan all but gives up center stage to duet partner Nelly Furtado.  Opening the song and singing all the hooks, she asks, "am I alone in this fight," and he steps in slowly.  At the end of the second verse, building beats underscore his call to fight, and the drums take on a martial insistence as he answers Furtado's "Can't do it all alone" with "No one can, baby/No one should baby!"  It's a great pop moment, and it belongs to both of them.

That need for each other carries over into the second cut, trading raps with Nas on "Nothing to Lose." K'naan is able to push Nas to some of his best work, giving his own war stories to match the Somalian kid he inspired.  They conclude more determined than ever--"Difficulty's an excuse history never accepts/So we triumph!"

Percolating bass, beats and chimes counterbalance stately choral backing over piano on "More Beautiful Than Silence," a song about maintaining perspective and strategizing a conversation when "my own fans can't relate to my streets." The cinematic quality of this song, ending with a violin solo overreaching that piano and hanging a final sweet note in the air, is reminiscent of perhaps the only other young artist with a comparably ambitious social vision, Janelle Monae. The fact that K'naan would take time out of his record to reflect on the importance of reflection may be as revolutionary as anything here.  "Better" takes such notions a step further, ratcheting up the pace of those beats against splashes of funky drums, embracing failure as a learning experience and declaring "Music is my ammo/I'm ready for battle."

Beginning with African chanting more than a little reminiscent of "Wimoweh" (Soloman Linda and the Evening Birds' 1939 South African hit, "Mbube"), "Coming to America" ties everything here together with humor and heart. K'naan taunts anti-immigrant sentiment telling his girl, "The green card sure looks fine," but his vision is much larger than personal gain.  He begins the song dedicating it to "anyone who ever had to leave their home." And he tells tales of sleeping with machine guns and playing with hand grenades before drawing the crucial connection that "even in America the hoods need a ticket out."  His refrain directed at America, "I hope we're gonna have a good time," sounds like a promise already delivered in these five out-stretched hands of serious play.  That might be enough, but every note of this short release (and his back catalog before) insist this is just the beginning.